This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL’s Thanksgiving slate. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back Sunday night, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: Jordan Love Is the Green Bay Packers’ Future
A lot happened in the NFL on Thanksgiving. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
When Jordan Love took the starting job for the Packers this season, no one knew how he was going to perform. But most unknown quarterbacks are rookies and sophomores on cheap deals—young players who still have time to establish themselves before their contract expires. Not so with Love.
Love had one season—this season—to establish himself as a viable starting quarterback. Not to show he might be a year away from being a viable starter, like Sam Howell might be. Not to merely be an acceptable but unspectacular quarterback who can’t elevate a team, as Kenny Pickett looks to be. But to prove he’s an actual, bona fide Guy. If he couldn’t, the Packers would start looking elsewhere for that Guy.
With six games left in the season, Love is close to landing the plane.
The Packers beat the NFC North–leading Lions 29-22 on Thanksgiving. That’s a short week, road, divisional win—an extremely hard thing to do. And Love was the primary reason the Packers pulled it off.
He ended the day with 22-for-32 passing for 268 yards and three scores, but more impressive than the stat sheet was his command. Love, who often seemed like a deer in headlights to start the season, looked anything but on Thursday. He took zero sacks and threw zero interceptions. He attacked tight windows when he saw a glimmer of sunlight and dumped the ball off when those windows were closed. He followed high-difficulty throws with high-maturity decisions. He looked complete.
Two throws to highlight from Love. The first: an in-structure, seven-step drop off play-action. Watch Love layer this sucker over sinking linebacker Jack Campbell and hit Romeo Doubs in stride before the safety arrives:
The important thing here is the drop footwork. He lands on that back foot and gets the ball out on one hitch. That’s the sign of a player who trusts the timing of the route, the location of the receiver, the design of the offense. That’s a level of comfort Love wasn’t showing earlier in the year.
And now, here he is throwing out of structure. The zip on that first throw is great, but the arm talent on this one? Please.
Standing on the 27-yard line outside the right hash, on his toes, throwing to the 50, outside the left numbers? That’s a trick shot.
Love’s arm strength has been the most impressive thing in his game, now that we have enough film to really give him an evaluation. He can adjust arm angles easily and deliver a high variety of throws, and the velocity he achieves gets him out of sticky situations. I particularly loved this rep for how quickly he processed and delivered—a combination of good mental work, good footwork, and a live arm:
Good rep from Jordan Love that I missed live.— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 24, 2023
Watch him open to the two receiver side (quick outs) on 1-step drop timing, quickly ID that the leverage is bad, hop into the Jayden Reed crosser on 3-step drop timing, and deliver an accurate and timely ball on no hitch pic.twitter.com/5NhQPKlv3F
While this was the best game for Love this season, it had a preamble. Love played well last week in a win against the Chargers and even impressed in a loss against the Steelers in Week 10. Since Week 9, Love is third in the league in expected points added per dropback, third in explosive play rate, fourth in success rate. In each stat, he’s just behind Houston’s C.J. Stroud, whose recent play has solidified his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign and generated some MVP noise, and Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, who is receiving MVP buzz as well. That’s the caliber of play that Love has delivered.
Now, we have to see what happens next. There are six games left before we can complete Love’s evaluation, and the hay is not in the barn. This is a young and volatile offense, and Love will still make mistakes. When the end of the season rolls around, he’ll be judged on the body of his work—not just the last four weeks.
With only one year remaining on his deal—which has an infinitesimal $7.7 million cap hit that’s less than the dead cap hit were he to be cut or traded—the Packers want nothing more than for Love to prove he’s their future starter. If he finishes strong, then the good will outweigh the bad. The experience and improvement will speak for themselves, and Love will be the Packers’ starting quarterback of the foreseeable future.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY against an unblocked edge defender
Christian McCaffrey’s second touchdown run against the Seahawks Thursday night was a sick one. The player to watch here is Seattle’s no. 53, Boye Mafe—he’s the unblocked edge defender to the backside. Watch him the whole way:
See how McCaffrey pulls him to the outside to explode past him on the inside? With the subsequent overreaction from pursuing Seattle safety Jamal Adams, McCaffrey doesn’t just find enough space to turn what looked like a loss into a positive gain—he finds a first down and a touchdown.
Now here’s a run from a little earlier in the game. The player to watch this time is Seahawk no. 27 Tariq Woolen:
A cool Christian McCaffrey run pic.twitter.com/ms7Ae4o1Nk— I Don't Want To Spam My Main Timeline w/ Vids (@MeshSitWheel) November 24, 2023
Different unblocked defender coming in off the edge; same result. This is what makes McCaffrey the best running back in the NFL: the ability to do this, and myriad other little things you and I can’t notice, in the tight spaces between offensive linemen and careening defenders. He creates daylight where other backs don’t. Special player.
2. THE RESISTANCE offered by the Detroit Lions’ defense as of late
Get it? Little resistance? Anyway.
The Lions have given up at least 29 points in each of the past three games. Now, they won two of those three games—which is good. But against the Chargers in Week 10, it took a game-winning field goal drive; against the Bears in Week 11, it took two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to secure a late lead. And against the Packers in Week 12, well … a late 15-point deficit was too much to overcome, and they lost by seven.
The Lions were strong defensively early this season, but they were getting really heroic play from a few key spots: defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, linebacker Alex Anzalone, and safety Brian Branch. As those cornerstones have come down to earth, the Lions’ lack of impact talent elsewhere on defense has been exposed. Rookie linebacker Jack Campbell has a huge target on his back from opposing offenses. The collective non-Hutchinson pass rushers don’t provide even a cumulative threat. Secondary depth has already bottomed out.
I love the Lions. But I don’t see how this team can really punch at NFC heavyweight level until they get better on defense, and that isn’t happening overnight.
3. SPINNING the correct direction
Funniest play of the Thursday slate was certainly this failed fourth down for the Packers, when Love and AJ Dillon smashed into each other in the backfield:
Mix-up from the Packers offense causes Dillon to truck through Love and end up short of the 1st pic.twitter.com/v4JpGm3PhW— NFL UK (@NFLUK) November 23, 2023
I can’t exactly figure out who’s wrong here. I think it’s Love. I know, however, that someone felt like the biggest idiot in the world and will be bullied in the meeting room early next week.
I wanted to hear from y’all for this midweek installment of our regular Sunday column. Plenty of great questions came in. Here are a few favorites.
What would be the most entertaining playoff matchup scenario for this season— PlayinPossum (@KingpinLionO) November 23, 2023
I’m not sure if you wanted the entire field. You’re getting it anyway.
Give the Ravens the bye in the AFC so that we can get …
- 2-seed Chiefs vs. 7-seed Bills
- 3-seed Dolphins vs. 6-seed Steelers (sure)
- 4-seed Texans vs. 5-seed Jaguars
And in the NFC, give the Eagles the bye.
- 2-seed Lions vs. 7-seed Seahawks (the past two games between these teams have been 37-31 and 48-45)
- 3-seed 49ers vs. 6-seed Vikings
- 4-seed Falcons vs. 5-seed Cowboys (there’s no way to save this one)
Do you think linebackers like Fred Warner and Roquan Smith have the same level of impact as elite edge rushers and should they get more DPOY consideration?— Trav (@TC23254) November 23, 2023
Excellent question. Yes.
As the NFL increasingly runs split field coverages, a middle linebacker who can cover becomes increasingly valuable. While great coverage linebackers are still hugely valuable to even the most dedicated single-high defenses (see: Wagner, Bobby, circa 2013), split field defenses tend to deploy more diverse coverages that require a greater number of rules, checks, and adjustments.
Accordingly, linebackers are more frequently put in a position where they must pick up coverage on a slot wide receiver or an elite tight end. They also have to run with those athletes downfield between the hashes more frequently—that’s a huge ask. And, not for nothing: The running backs these days really can catch, man.
Elite coverage ’backers like Warner and Smith allow their respective defenses to run coverages that other teams just can’t touch, and accordingly, the defense is more diverse and adaptable. You can’t really put a stat on that, so I don’t think this idea will ever break into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. But it matters to me, and it should matter to you.
Who will be the top 5 QBs in 7 years from now— Mak Klein (@mak_klein_) November 23, 2023
Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, C.J. Stroud, Caleb Williams, an unidentified current high school sophomore or something.
I heard Ruiz say that he kinda thinks throwing interceptions is good (in reference to Josh Allen) because it means you are trying, and likely getting big, plays too. Is that true?— Ben But Worse (@BenButWorse) November 23, 2023
I'm trying to sow discord between the football hipsters society
So, let’s pretend there are two bad things that can happen as the result of a pass play: an interception or a sack. There are certainly times when there is wisdom in taking a sack—like when protecting a small lead late, or when a turnover would really swing the tide. But, in general, the quarterback who throws a lot of picks is attempting passes, which is overall better than not attempting passes (and taking sacks).
But all interceptions are different—think snowflakes. When Josh Allen throws one interception into a tight window downfield, it’s because he’s aggressive. When he throws an interception into the sideline four times, it’s becoming a pattern, and now it’s frustrating. In the case of Allen, I think he should continue playing an aggressive brand of football but should probably take the dial back from a 90 to a 75.
In general, I think we make too big of a deal about counting interceptions. Quarterbacks can have multi-interception games in which they suffered a tipped ball and a receiver miscommunication. They can have zero-interception games in which multiple defenders dropped easy picks. Interceptions are a really, really imperfect stat.
As always: Watch the film.
You need one scoring drive to save all of humanity. Your choices are Zach Wilson or Tim Boyle. Who you got?— Ryan Kirksey sports and screens (@CableBoxScore) November 20, 2023
They call it Black Friday for a reason: because we have to watch Tim Boyle during it, and that’s as dark as it gets. Give me Wilson.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Defensive Player of the Year (of the Week): Dallas Cowboys Cornerback DaRon Bland
I’m so happy Bland got a record-setting pick-six on a national stage on Thanksgiving—it should do wonders for his nationwide name recognition. On a crowded Cowboys defense full of known stars like Micah Parsons and Stephon Gilmore, it’s been tough for a former fifth-round pick to get his due—but make no bones about it, Bland has been lights out since he stepped onto the field as a rookie last season. His sophomore emergence is neither an accident nor an aberration. Bland is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, period.
But good film is one thing; setting an NFL record is another. Bland is the defensive player of the week for sure, but his case for Defensive Player of the Year is getting stronger with every score. Gilmore, Bland’s running mate in the Dallas secondary, is the only cornerback to have won the award since 2010. He did so in 2019 with the New England Patriots, when he grabbed six picks and broke up 20 passes. Bland in 11 games so far in 2023: seven picks (with five touchdowns) and 13 passes defensed.
Bland’s production is good enough for him to win—but what about the competition? Gilmore beat out Chandler Jones, who had 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles, and T.J. Watt, who also had eight forced fumbles with 14.5 sacks. Bland may face stiffer competition: Browns defensive end Myles Garrett has 13 sacks through 10 games—he’s on pace for 22 sacks over a 17-game season. Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter is right behind him with 12.
Garrett certainly has a bigger impact on opposing offensive game plans than Bland does, but that’s true of all top defensive ends relative to all top cornerbacks, who are much harder to neutralize with scheme. Even though Bland has scored more touchdowns outright, I have no doubt that Garrett affects games about as much.
I think my vote would still go to Garrett—but, man … ain’t nothing wrong with giving a record setter the award. Both are deserving.
Most Valuable Player (of the Week): Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott
I’m listing Prescott second in the Thanksgiving awards because I think Bland has a legit shot at DPOY, while Prescott is still on the outside looking in (my vote right now would still go to Lamar Jackson). But there’s no way to wave away how Prescott has been playing recently. Since the nightmare game against San Francisco in Week 5, he leads the league in EPA per dropback by a mile (.34 to Kirk Cousins’s and C.J. Stroud’s .19). He has 23 touchdowns and five picks. And critically—only Will Levis is throwing farther downfield than Prescott is. This is no dink-and-dunk Mike McCarthy offense, no “get the ball to CeeDee Lamb and let him do the work for me.” This is big-boy football.
Dak Prescott completed 7 of 12 passes for 189 yards and 3 TDs targeting vertical routes tonight against the Commanders.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 24, 2023
Prescott has now thrown 16 TDs targeting vertical routes this season, 14 of which have come since Week 8 (both the most in the NFL).
Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/HfLSNVgYFx
Dak’s MVP candidacy will likely come down to whether the Cowboys can win the NFC East. While the Cowboys have been awesome this year, they’ve largely beaten up on bad teams. They’ve lost to the two NFC contenders they’ve played—the Eagles and the Niners. But they were close against Philly—and they get another crack at them in Week 13.
Catch of the Year (of the Week): Seahawks Wide Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba
If you fell asleep on the La-Z-Boy as the sun went down and missed most of 49ers-Seahawks, I don’t blame you. (Heck, I almost was you.) And you didn’t miss much: The 49ers pass rush feasted on a depleted Seahawks offensive line, McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel broke about 12 tackles each, and the 49ers breezed to a 31-13 victory over Seattle. The NFC West is theirs to lose.
The one bright spot for the Seahawks that you did miss? This Jaxon Smith-Njigba snag.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of points the Lions lost by in their game against the Packers. It was seven, not five.